Where 2017-18 Happens: Reason #3 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on November 8th, 2017

As RTC heads into its 11th season covering college hoops, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish the games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Friday, November 10. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#3 – Where Crashed Champion Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 preseasons.

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Big Ten Preview Part V: Key Questions For Wisconsin & Michigan

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 6th, 2017

With the season just a few days away, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we address Wisconsin and Michigan.

#6 Wisconsin – Just how much can Ethan Happ do?

In 2017-18, the Badgers will go as far as Ethan Happ takes them. (Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)

Ethan Happ was Wisconsin’s best player last season and there’s not much argument otherwise. Despite playing just 27.8 minutes per game — fourth-most among the Badgers’ starters — the forward led his team in rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, all while scoring at a coolly efficient clip (58.6% FG). According to KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, in fact, Happ was the eighth-best player in the entire country a season ago. But he also had help in the form of four seniors — Bronson Koenig (14.5 PPG), Nigel Hayes (14.0 PPG), Zak Showalter (8.3 PPG), and Vitto Brown (6.8 PPG) — whose years of experience in the Wisconsin system helped the big man flourish. With that group no longer around, Happ must carry an even bigger load this season. And he might well have the tools to do it. An excellent passer out of the post, Happ used 28.4 percent of Wisconsin’s possessions while he was on the floor (ranking in the top 100 nationally) while posting a 23.3 percent assist rate, among the highest in college basketball by players standing 6’10” or taller. Which is to say, Wisconsin often ran its offense through Happ, and — whether by scoring or passing — he generally made good things happen. With sophomore D’Mitrik Trice taking over the Badgers’ point guard duties and not much backcourt depth to speak of, Happ’s ability to distribute good looks from the blocks will be more than just an added benefit this season; it will be crucial to the team’s success. What’s more, the crafty post scorer reportedly worked on adding a mid- and long-range jumper to his offensive skill set over the summer. For a highly efficient scorer who also dominates the glass on both ends, led the Big Ten in steal rate, and ranked among the top 10 nationally in block rate… that’s a scary notion. Wisconsin has not finished below fourth place in the Big Ten since 2001. If Happ can be Mr. Everything and his young supporting cast — including a talented group of incoming freshmen — can provide consistent offensive support, this preseason projection of sixth place will look quite foolish. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Oregon 69, #7 Michigan 68

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 23rd, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) is in Kansas City for this weekend’s Midwest Regional.

Oregon Gets To Keep On Dancing (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  • Derrick Walton Jr. shines, but falls just short. Michigan’s senior point guard had elevated his play down the stretch, and he had another terrific game Thursday night, scoring 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting and delivering eight assists against just two turnovers in 37 minutes of action. With the game in the balance, however, Walton hoisted an ill-advised three-pointer that rimmed away sealing the win for Oregon. His excellent play and self-confidence showed why he’s become so magnetic over the last few weeks, but he fell just one play short.
  • Jordan Bell excels on both ends. With Chris Boucher out, Bell has stepped up to provide athleticism and denial of easy looks. He did a terrific job of shutting down Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson, Michigan’s two talented big men. He also helped carry the load on offense, scoring 16 points and carving up the Wolverines’ small frontcourt. Most teams don’t have a player who can lock up a pair of players like that on one end and dice them up on the other, but Bell was just that for Oregon, and he’ll be an X-Factor no matter who he lines up against Saturday night.
  • A storybook chapter in Michigan basketball comes to a close. The Wolverines went through it all in the last few weeks from a potentially disastrous travel incident to an improbable Big Ten Tournament run and conquering two of college basketball’s best units in Oklahoma State’s offense and Louisville’s defense. With just one more fortuitous bounce on Thursday, the Wolverines would be playing for a spot in the Final Four, but just because they fell short doesn’t mean that this wasn’t one of college basketball’s best stories, because it was.

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NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (30-4). Despite receiving a 30-minute test from #9 Michigan State on Sunday, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks smashed #16 UC Davis 100-62 before dominating the last 10 minutes against the Spartans in the Round of 32 — a hard-fought victory that should prepare them well for an even stronger Big Ten opponent, #4 Purdue, on Thursday. If you buy into advanced metrics, this appears to be a fairly even matchup: Kansas ranks seventh in KenPom, while the Boilermakers rank 13th. Unfortunately for Matt Painter’s group, the game will be played in Kansas City, where a sea of Jayhawk faithful is sure to outnumber Purdue fans several fold. Assuming Kansas prevails, it will be a similar story against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan. Beating Kansas is one thing, but beating Kansas in a semi-road game is something entirely different.

Kansas Rolls Into KC as the Clear Midwest Region Favorite (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #7 Michigan (26-11). The Wolverines have not lost since that epic defeat at Northwestern on March 1, a nearly three-week stretch which has included a near-plane crash, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and a pair of gutsy NCAA Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville. Michigan now boasts the third-most efficient offense in college basketball, thanks in large part to blistering performances like the one Moritz Wagner (26 points on 11-of-14 FT) put on against the Cardinals on Sunday. If John Beilein’s group can get past shorthanded Oregon on Thursday, there’s no reason to think it can’t win this region. Heck, the Wolverines have already beaten Purdue twice since February 25, and the last time they played Kansas in the Big Dance, this happened. Look out.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Rhode Island (25-10). Rhode Island entered the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak, so its victory over #6 Creighton in the Round of 64 was not that surprising. The fashion in which it whipped the Bluejays, though — winning by 14 points and trailing for exactly zero seconds in game time — was quite unexpected. So too was the Rams’ effort against #3 Oregon on Sunday night, a game in which they led by double-figures in the second half before falling victim to a cold-blooded Tyler Dorsey three-pointer in the closing seconds. For a program that had not gone dancing since 1999, Rhode Island was certainly ready for prime time.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan 71, Wisconsin 56

Posted by Chris Stone on March 12th, 2017

RTC’s Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) is providing on-site coverage of the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, DC.

Derrick Walton Jr. led Michigan to a Big Ten title. (AP)

Three Key Takeaways. 

  1. Michigan didn’t look like the tired team. If you asked a neutral observer with no knowledge of prior events which of these two teams had played four games in four days, the answer probably would have been Wisconsin. In the first 10 minutes of the second half, however — a time when you might expect Michigan’s weariness to show — the Wolverines went on a 13-4 run while the Badgers sputtered. During that stretch, Wisconsin shot 1-of-10 from the field and committed five turnovers. It helped Michigan open up the lead that carried them to victory.
  2. Zak Irvin showed up huge. The Michigan senior was hyped during the team’s warmups and he delivered a magnificent performance to back up his talk. Irvin finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists, including a backbreaking three-pointer with 5:46 remaining. Irvin’s three followed a five-point Wisconsin run that forced a John Beilein timeout and briefly quieted the largely pro-Michigan crowd. The scary thing about the Wolverines is that they have so many pieces who can heat up in a hurry. Irvin came up big for them today.
  3. This was not Ethan Happ’s best day. Early on in conference play, Happ looked like a serious contender for Big Ten Player of the Year, but Happ’s candidacy went with it as the Badgers suffered a late season slide. The Wisconsin sophomore is a great talent who does a bit of everything, but Sunday simply wasn’t his day. Happ ended up with a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), but really struggled to score efficiently around the rim. He finished 6-of-16 from the field and most of his misses came in the paint.

Star of the Game: Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan. Irvin was excellent, but so was Walton for the second day in a row. The senior finished with 22 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals en route to the tournament title. Walton was once again terrific in directing traffic and if anyone leads the Wolverines on a March run, it will be him.

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Michigan Has the Look of a March Sleeper

Posted by Chris Stone on March 11th, 2017

After dispatching Illinois in their opening round game of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan upset top-seeded Purdue on Friday behind 26 points from DJ Wilson and 54.3 percent shooting inside the arc. Now, just two days after an incredibly harrowing incident in which the Wolverines’ plane aborted takeoff, skidded off the runway and nearly ended up in a ravine, the team has the look of a potential NCAA Tournament sleeper. “We’ve been selling the fun of a run,” head coach John Beilein said after Friday’s victory. “You throw in what happened on Wednesday, now they’ve got a lot of memories. We don’t want it to stop.”

Derrick Walton Jr. and Michigan are built to win in March. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Michigan figures to make the NCAA Tournament field come Selection Sunday, likely ending up with a middling seed after amassing a 10-8 record during Big Ten regular season play. Recent history suggests that might not be such a bad thing. Under-seeded major conference teams who are well-respected by efficiency metrics like KenPom have been known to deliver. Last season, Syracuse became the first No. 10 seed to make a Final Four. In 2015, Michigan State made the final weekend as a No. 7 seed, and in 2014, No. 11 Tennessee found its way into the Sweet Sixteen after winning a play-in game. After Friday’s win, the Wolverines rank 24th in KenPom, a placement that would put them in line for a No. 6 seed if the Selection Committee seeded strictly on that ranking. Michigan may end up a couple lines lower than that.

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Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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Can Michigan’s Flashes of Dominance Carry It to March?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 9th, 2017

There are blowouts, and then there’s what Michigan did to Michigan State on Tuesday night. Not four days removed from a home loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines pummeled the Spartans 86-57, shooting 21-of-28 from the field in the first half, grabbing a quick 26-point lead and never looking back. The final margin tied Michigan State’s largest defeat in the rivalry’s long and illustrious history, a beatdown so thorough that Tom Izzo was hard-pressed to find any silver lining (“a complete meltdown,” he said). And it’s not the first time Michigan has crushed an NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent this season. On January 30, John Beilein’s club beat Indiana by 30 points; back in November, it toppled Marquette and SMU by 18 and 22 points, respectively. This team has proven capable of excellence when everything clicks. That “when,” though, has also been a major “if” this season, with the Wolverines just as prone to laying an egg as they are to winning by double-figures. With less than a month left in the regular season, the question now isn’t whether Michigan has the potential to do damage in the Big Dance; it’s whether it can remain consistent enough to get there.

On Tuesday, Michigan point guard Derrick Walton was a man on a mission. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

For as superb as Michigan’s offense was earlier this week, its dominance was ignited and sustained on the defensive end. The Wolverines’ played with a clear sense of urgency on the perimeter, preventing Michigan State—a three-point-reliant team—from creating open looks behind the arc. The Spartans attempted just five threes in the first half and looked completely bewildered in their half-court sets, evidenced by three (and nearly five) shot-clock violations in the first 20 minutes alone. “We got late and lost. We just didn’t execute,” Izzo said afterward. All told, Michigan forced Izzo’s group into 21 turnovers at a whopping 31.8 percent turnover rate—by far the highest of any Wolverines’ opponent this season. Spartan super-freshman Miles Bridges alone accounted for five mishaps. The suffocating defensive effort was reminiscent of the Wolverines’ dominant performances against Illinois and Indiana in late January—and noticeably better than Saturday’s showing against the Buckeyes. “They understand there’s another level we can play at,” Beilein said, later adding, “When we show the video of this, it will be the defense that led to the fast break. The steals that led to the fast break.”

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Michigan’s Defense is the Difference Between NCAA and NIT

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2017

It doesn’t take a hoops junkie to recognize that a good, balanced effort on both sides of the ball generally equates to success. And maybe it would be overly simplistic to offer an unbalanced team such advice as “be better on defense.” For this year’s Michigan squad, however, there may not be a more apt prescription. The Wolverines—the Big Ten’s most efficient offensive unit—simply haven’t had a defense to match this season, ranking dead-last in conference play on that end of the court. On nights when they have defended well, the offense has taken a step back. Put simply, the pieces have rarely come together. After an inspired wire-to-wire victory over Illinois on Saturday, however, John Beilein’s group appears to be taking some steps in the right direction. Michigan was stout defensively, received contributions up and down the lineup, and—for perhaps the first time since November—played a complete game against a quality opponent. With a crucial five-game stretch coming and an NCAA Tournament berth still far from guaranteed, the Wolverines’ newfound balance has arrived just in the nick of time.

On Saturday, Michigan looked like the team that pounded SMU and Marquette back in November. (mgoblue.com)

“Blue-collar” defense. Following Illinois’ 85-69 thrashing of Michigan on January 11, Illini center Maverick Morgan referred to the Wolverines as a “white-collar team,” a comment which—at least at the time—seemed completely on point. Due to a mixture of lax perimeter defense and some bad luck, Michigan entered the weekend surrendering an astounding 52.4 percent from three-point range (53-for-101) against Big Ten opponents, including a 9-of-14 effort against the Illini in that first meeting. On the whole, Beilein’s team after came into Saturday’s game surrendering more than 1.2 points per possession, and yet, on the heels of an encouraging effort at Wisconsin, the defensive tide shifted drastically. Michigan held Illinois to just 0-of-5 from three-point range in the first half, and 2-of-12 for the game. Illini ball-handlers were forced into a Big Ten-high 17 turnovers, and Morgan, who made all but one shot from the field in the first meeting, was held in check underneath the basket. “We were active, we were in gaps, swarming to the ball, flying around,” Beilein said after the game. “That was as hard as we’ve played on defense all year.” Before the weekend, Wolverines’ guard Zak Irvin lobbied his team to wear its road blue jerseys to represent the “blue-collar” attitude with which it intended to play. And Michigan didn’t disappoint, holding Illinois to 0.86 points per possession in its strongest defensive effort since the calendar turned to 2017.

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Michigan Starts Finding Answers on Opening Weekend

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 14th, 2016

When Michigan was again forced to adjust to life without star shooting guard Caris LeVert — whose college career ended after suffering a season-ending leg injury last December — it posed two silver linings. On the one hand, it was a blessing in disguise. The Wolverines still snuck into the NCAA Tournament, and the increased workload for guards Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin gave the experienced duo more to build on entering 2016-17. LeVert’s exit, however, also marked the first in a series of unforeseen departures which have created more questions than answers entering this season, even with the team’s starting five fully intact. If its opening weekend victory over IUPUI is any indication, Michigan’s questions will take some time to fully answer—but the blueprint for progress is there.

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

Emerging Frontcourt Depth

The Wolverines’ chief concern is depth, and not just because LeVert is gone. 2013 Final Four hero Spike Albrecht briefly retired last December because of a hip injury before eventually heading to Purdue. In April, guard Aubrey Dawkins (6.5 PPG) transferred to Central Florida to play for his father. A month later, frontcourt role players Ricky Doyle and Kameron Chatman—whose clutch triple against Indiana last March helped Michigan reach the Dance—also departed. The spate of transfers has left John Beilein with a short and inexperienced bench; on Sunday, only seven players saw meaningful minutes. The good news? One of those players, forward D.J. Wilson, looked like a breakout star. After barely seeing the floor last season, the springy sophomore scored seven points and ripped down 14 rebounds in a career-high 30 minutes against the Jaguars, providing a much needed spark off the bench. Read the rest of this entry »

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